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A Needed Upgrade: Tank Deliveries Could Mark Turning Point in War


There is enormous relief in Kyiv that, after months of hesitation, the West is now willing to supply main battle tanks. But can the Leopard 2s supplied by Germany and its allies really turn the tide on the battlefield?

It's the end of January, and the industrial city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine can only be reached by a few roads.

The threat of being surrounded by Russian troops is ever present.

Driving on one of these narrow country roads through the hilly landscape, the thunder of detonations already in your ears, you can make out some of the Ukrainians' old T-72 tanks between the trees – none of Panzerhaubitzer 2000 or Gepard air defense tanks sent by Germany, no American HIMARS multiple rocket launchers.

That's not surprising given that, statistically, there is only one of these Western-supplied devices for every 10 or 20 kilometers of front lines?

Instead, a gun on wheels appears from behind an embankment, looking as if it had rolled out of a period film: a 57-millimeter caliber cannon, dating back to the end of World War II and mounted on trucks dating from the 1960s.

Target control is adjusted from a delivery van, on whose roof a Starlink satellite link maintains contact with the reconnaissance unit that launches drones.

The front around Bakhmut shows the extent to which Ukraine is reliant on military aid from the West.

The Ukrainian military has modernized its arsenal, mainly with NATO's help.

But the wear and tear of the war is so great that Ukrainians are forced in some cases to defend themselves against the Russian attackers using ancient equipment.

One of the fighters with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, a unit of reservists and volunteers in the Donbas, introduces himself as "Blacksmith."

Outside of war, he's an iron craftsman, but now he's an artilleryman.

"Pilot" used to be a top manager at a turbine manufacturer.

Only the youngest one still seems to have kept his real first name: Dima used to earn his money as a camera assistant on large film productions.

Now, he controls the drones.

For over a month, the three milled and tinkered with recycled weapons in an old repair shop.

In November, they fired the first of them.

And how was it?

"Very loud. But it's no big deal. I'm a punk musician on the side."

"A Game Changer on the Battlefield"

Nowhere along the approximately 1,000-kilometer-long front is the fighting in Ukraine currently as fierce as it is in the Donbas.

And few cities there have been attacked by Russia's troops as often in recent weeks as Bakhmut.

Wave after wave of regular army units and Wagner Group mercenaries have continuously pressed the Ukrainian defenders.

Last Wednesday, the Ukrainians admitted that they had to withdraw from the town of Soledar near Bakhmut.

This makes the relief in Kyiv that Germany has agreed to supply modern Leopard 2 battle tanks, after months of hesitation, all the greater.

Together with their European partners, the Germans plan to deliver a total of two battalions of 40 Leopards each.

The United States announced it would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks.

Shortly after that, Britain promised Kyiv 14 Challenger tanks.

The development marks a turning point.

Previously, the West had been reluctant to export such offensive weapons to Ukraine.

According to Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the Ukrainian forces, his army needs 300 Western tanks and 600 armored vehicles to really make a difference against the Russians on the battlefield.

Kyiv is nonetheless hoping that the European and American move will mark an inflection point in the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that he was sincerely grateful to Chancellor Olaf Scholz and "all our friends in Germany."

Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Melnyk spoke to the news agency Deutsche Press Agentur of an historic moment.

He said that Berlin's decision to supply tanks is a "game changer on the battlefield."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is also convinced that the Leopards could help Ukraine "defend itself, win and prevail as an independent nation" at a "critical moment" in the war, as he tweeted on Wednesday.

Russia's ambassador in Berlin, Sergei Nechaev, on the other hand, described the planned delivery as "highly dangerous" on Twitter.

He said the move would "take the conflict to a new level of confrontation."

Thus far, tanks have played a largely secondary role in the war.

They have primarily been used to provide support to artillery efforts and haven't really been used in direct combat.

Military experts believe this could now change.

Because of their mobility and range, the Leopard tanks are among the best in the world.

They are also more effective than Soviet models at firing accurately while traveling at full speed.

According to a report by CNN, the Americans have already suggested to the Ukrainian military that they should change tactics.

Instead of getting bogged down in battles of attrition like Bakhmut, they believe the Ukrainians should make quick, unexpected advances.

The Western allies are already providing modern armored personnel carriers and troop transport vehicles for this purpose, as well as additional artillery and air defenses.

In a future advance, the Leopards could ideally attack Russian positions while the transports carrying the infantrymen break through into enemy territory.

Mobile flak tanks like Germany's Gepard would protect against air strikes and at the same time create more space for Ukraine's own fighter jets.

Artillery support would come from the the rear with, for example, Germany's self-propelled Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzer.

The Ukrainians already successfully tested a surprise strategy, even with their limited resources, in late summer during their counteroffensive in Kharkiv.

Since then, however, the Russians have become more attuned to the enemy and have reinforced their positions.

The question now is how quickly the Ukrainians can get the new tanks to the front.

Germany plans to start training Ukrainian soldiers on the Leopard 2 for six to eight weeks in the coming days.

The Leopards could then be deployed in Ukraine this spring.

The situation is more complicated with the American M1 Abrams tanks.

The US withdrew its armored divisions from Europe 10 years ago, meaning the logistics chain will now have to be rebuilt.

The Abrams is also more difficult to operate than the Leopard.

Experts believe Kyiv won't be able to rely on them until the end of the year.

A Vote of Confidence in Kyiv

Despite all the uncertainties, the U-turn by Western partners on the tanks is important for Ukraine not only militarily, but also psychologically.

It underscores the West's willingness to provide the country with support in the long term.

Ukrainians are currently experiencing a harsh winter of war.

Russia's strikes on civilian infrastructure, its constant attacks with drones, missiles and cruise missiles mean that the power keeps going out or gets cut off in large parts of the country.

Many Ukrainians are freezing and spending their days in bunkers as artillery explodes outside.

Millions have been forced to flee their homes.

Last week, a Russian missile attack on an apartment block in the city of Dnipro killed at least 46 civilians.

The prospect of modern battle tanks from the West is now giving people new hope.

Last week, scores of pictures circulated on social media of Ukrainians wearing blouses, coats, pants and even bras with leopard print patterns.

Experts assume that Ukraine could seek to regain territory with the help of Leopard tanks, especially in the south.

The expectation is that Ukraine will attack in the Zaporizhzhia region, where a long stretch of the front is located, says Mark Cancian, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC There hasn't been much fighting in the region lately, which could in turn mean that the Russians have less of a stronghold there.

If the Ukrainians do succeed in Zaporizhzhia, they could also potentially advance to the Sea of ​​Azov via Melitopol.

They could then divide the Russian-controlled territory into two parts, which would massively complicate Russia's logistics.

Overnight, even the Crimean Peninsula could potentially be within range of Ukrainian artillery.

Crimea has held a special role in the conflict because the Russians have occupied it since 2014. Since then, the peninsula has become a popular destination for Russia tourists.

It also has high symbolic importance for Russian ruler Vladimir Putin himself, who regards the annexation as historical restitution of sorts.

For the Ukrainian army, Crimea is almost impossible to capture by conventional means over land and sea.

The bulwark of Russian soldiers is too massive.

For this reason, President Zelenskyy has been so far cautious about the idea of ​​recapturing the territory in the near future.

But if the Ukrainians do manage to advance to the coast and cut off supplies to Crimea, Cancian believes that the Russians would then only be able to continue supplying the peninsula by boat.

At that point, it would be difficult for Moscow to hold it.

Fears of escalation

For that to happen, though, the Ukraine would have to have artillery that can be fired much further than what it has now.

According to a report on the news site Politico, the US is considering supplying the Ukrainians with munitions that would nearly double the range of the HIMARS missile launchers from 80 to 150 kilometers.

However, calls for fighter jets, as raised again this week by Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Melnyk, have so far been rejected by Western allies.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden stressed that he does not want to go to war against Russia under any circumstances.

Still, the Americans and the Europeans are making a bet with their increased involvement.

They appear to be trying to force Putin to the negotiating table.

And in that regard, the Leopard tanks could help.

In the West, too, people now seem to be largely convinced that the Kremlin leader will only make concessions if things get tight for him on the battlefield, even if concern remains high, particularly among the Europeans, that Moscow could escalate the war beyond Ukraine after all

So far, Putin has remained stubborn, insisting that talks with Kyiv would only be possible if he could keep the conquered territories - meaning if he is allowed to have a payoff for his war.

In Moscow these days, you get the impression that the worse things are going for Russia in Ukraine, the louder of the talk of "victory" sounds.

Propagandists and politicians are presenting triumph in Ukraine as the only conceivable outcome of the war.

They construct false parallels to World War II by claiming that today, as then, Russia's existence is at stake.

The comparison is deliberately chosen.

The memory of the victory over Hitler's Germany has held the country together for generations.

Now, the Kremlin is once again preparing the Russian people for a long war.

Russian political analyst and Kremlin expert Tatiana Stanovaya argues that Putin already came to understand at the end of last year that negotiations with the United States as he imagined them were not possible.

She says last week's decision to send tanks likely made clear to him once and for all that the West would not allow itself to be divided in this war, as he had long hoped.

Now, she says, he will have to recognize that the Americans and Europeans are counting on Russia's unequivocal military defeat.

The question is how Putin will deal with that realization.

The Russian president isn't a particularly good strategist – instead, he's a tactician who often takes weeks or longer to adjust to a changing situation, Stanovaya says.

Of course, he could invoke nuclear weapons as a threat to deter the West.

But even within the Kremlin, it is now understood that there is no value in drawing red lines if they aren't observed in the end.

Stanovaya believes that a withdrawal is also out of the question for Putin at this point.

"In his mind, Russia simply can't lose," she says.

At the start of the new year, Putin put Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov in command of what Moscow dubs the special operation in Ukraine, so that the chain of command is clearly concentrated on one general.

The move is viewed by military experts as potential preparation for a new offensive in the spring.

It is also quite possible that he will send hundreds of thousands more soldiers to the front.

It also appears that Putin might react to the West's tank decision much as he has to most setbacks in this war – and continue to play for time for now.

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2023-01-30

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